a spark of silver
Bangladeshis love food. We love food to the extent of elevating it to an obsession. And, we are known to be 'maache bhaate bangali'. Give us fish and rice, and we are a happy lot. And if the fish concerned is ilish…! We are in the heavens.
And there's every reason for it. Ask any hilsa enthusiast. The taste of hilsa fish is incomparable to any other fish, any other food for that matter! Interestingly, a major part of the taste is in its smell. Asaj, a hilsa fan says, “The aroma is so great that I can eat a plate of full of rice while just smelling the fish curry!”
But of course not many people are satisfied with just the smell. And that's why we have so many hilsa recipes that make our mouths water just by thinking about them. There's shorshe ilish, where you get the scent of mustard combined with that of the fish, there's a little bit sour doi ilish, ilish dopiaja, etc.
In our country, no celebration is complete without good food. Ilish plays a big part in the mornings of the Bengali New Year. You start the day with pantha ilish, another hilsa delicacy that we enjoy with pantha bhaat. Not just Pohela Boishak, there are other occasions where hilsa is a must. In many Hindu rituals, especially in Laksmi Puja, the followers offer hilsa to the goddess, without which the ceremony is incomplete.
Indeed, hilsa is deeply ingrained in our culture. For example, a massive Hilsa fish may arrive at your house from someone as a gift. Moreover, in some sub-cultures, the bridegroom has to shop for general groceries in the local 'kacha bazaar', and one of the major criteria by which his new in-laws will judge him is by his expertise in choosing the right fish; the size, shape, colour, quality - everything matters…tricky business indeed. Such is the enthusiasm for a fish!
Enthusiasm doesn't end till it reaches the fine line between sanity and insanity. Sayed Rahman, a businessman, takes time to go to Mawaghat at 3:30 in the morning. The reason behind this fishy business? Well…fish! “I'll be in Mawaghat before sunrise. Hilsa fish dies very quickly after they are taken out from the water. I can't compromise with ilish, no matter how difficult it is”.,
Another person shares his views. “The new generation doesn't understand the delight of buying a fresh hilsa from the local bazaar; bringing it home and finally eating it. You don't see these things anymore. Now, when I have the fish, the sweet memories of those lost days when my father used to take me to the busy and dirty bazaars to buy the fish floods my mind with a tinge of sadness”.
There are many like them. Nondini, a college professor, also gets nostalgic when talking about hilsa. “Long time ago, back in Comilla, there was this marketplace called Rajgonjo Bazaar. Whenever the price of ilish fell, a man used to beat his drum through the whole neighborhood and inform everyone about it. Even today, when I have hilsa, I hear the drum, and feel the happiness associated with it.”
Indeed, the price of ilish is very high. One kilogram can cost as high as Tk1500! And that of course, pulls the gates to bargaining wide open! Even bargaining for a hilsa is fun.
At the local bazaar, there are three parties who participate in the process. The buyer, the seller, and…the audience! Yeah, fighting for a big fish is amusing to many! But nowadays, people don't have time for the simple pleasures of life. You can go to Agora or Nandan or other superstores to get a hilsa. Although prices are somewhat higher, many people prefer that for convenience.
No matter how good it is, a segment of people do hate hilsa. They can't tolerate the smell of hilsa; many are allergic too. But the treat comes with many health benefits. Hilsa contains many essential fatty acids. Compared to many other fish, this one has very low toxin levels.
Hilsa contributes a lot to our country; around 2 percent of the total population depend on this sector. The fish swim in many different harsh waters: economy, politics, food, and culture. But above everything, it provides a delight - and that's all that matters - the sheer delight.
By M H Haider
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed